“What happened?” I whispered.
“I’d rather not relive the details. I made it for a long time, and I took out maybe six or seven of them before one got my leg. The doctor says I’ll probably be able to walk on it, but I’ll need a cane. At least I’m alive.”
A tear continued silently down my cheek. I was so grateful and scared and hopeless, I couldn’t help it.
“You saved my life, Mer.”
My eyes flew from his leg to his face.
“The shot you took spooked that rebel and gave me just enough time to fire. If you hadn’t done it, he would have shot me in the back, and that would have been it. Thank you.”
I wiped my eyes. “It was you who saved my life. You always have. It’s about time I started paying you back.”
He smiled. “I do have a tendency for heroics, don’t I?”
“You always wanted to be someone’s knight in shining armor.” I shook my head, thinking over everything he’d ever done for anyone he loved.
“Mer, listen to me. When I said that I’d always love you, I meant it. And I think if we had stayed in Carolina, we would have gotten married, and we would have been happy. Poor, but happy.” He smiled sadly. “But we didn’t stay in Carolina. And you’ve changed. I have, too. You were right when you said that I’d never given anyone else a chance, and why would I have ever bothered except for all this happening?
“It’s my instinct to fight for you, Mer. It took me a long time to see that you didn’t want me to do that anymore. But once I did, I realized I didn’t want to fight for you either.”
I stared at him, stunned.
“You’ll always have a piece of my heart, Mer, but I’m not in love with you anymore. I think sometimes that you still need me or want me, but I don’t know if that’s right. You deserve better than me being with you because I feel obligated.”
I sighed. “And you deserve better than being someone I settle for.”
He held out his hand to me and I took it. “I don’t want you to be mad at me.”
“I’m not. It’s good to know you’re not mad at me. Even if he is dead, I still love him.”
Aspen’s forehead creased. “Who’s dead?”
“Maxon,” I breathed, ready to cry again.
There was a pause. “Maxon’s not dead.”
“What! But that guard said he wasn’t here and—”
“Of course he’s not here. He’s the king. He’s recovering in his room.”
I lunged to hug him, and he grunted at the impact of my embrace; but I was too happy to be cautious. Then the happy and sad news mixed together.
I stepped back slowly. “The king died?”
Aspen nodded. “The queen, too.”
“No!” I shuddered, blinking again. She said I could call her Mom. What was Maxon going to do without her?
“Actually, if it hadn’t been for the Northern rebels, Maxon might not have made it either. They were really the tipping point.”
I could see the wonder and appreciation in his eyes. “We should have had rebels training us. They fight differently. They knew what to do. I recognized August and Georgia in the Great Room. They had backup outside the palace walls. Once they realized something was wrong, well, they already have a talent for getting into the palace quickly. I don’t know where they got the artillery from, but we’d all be gone without them.”
I could hardly take in all this. I was still putting the pieces together when the opening door disturbed the quiet murmurs in the wing. A worried face surveyed the room, and though her dress was torn and her hair was tumbling down around her face, I recognized her immediately.
Before I could call out to her, Aspen did. “Lucy!” he cried, sitting up. I knew the motion had to hurt him, but there was no sign of pain in his face.
“Aspen!” She gasped and ran across the wing, hopping over people as necessary. She fell into his arms, kissing his face over and over. While he’d grunted in pain when I’d hugged him, it was clear that in this moment, Aspen wasn’t feeling anything but pure happiness.
“Where were you?” he demanded.
“Fourth floor. They’re only now reaching the rooms up there. I came as fast as I could. What happened?” Though she was usually so panicked after rebel attacks, Lucy seemed focused now, seeing only Aspen.
“I’m fine. What about you? Do you need to see the doctor?” Aspen looked around, trying to find someone to help.
“No, I don’t even have a scratch,” she promised. “I was just worried about you.”
Aspen stared into Lucy’s eyes with absolute devotion. “Now that you’re here, everything’s right.”
She stroked his face, careful not to disturb his bandages. He put a hand behind her neck and gently pulled her to him, kissing her deeply.
No one needed a knight more than Lucy, and no one could protect her better than Aspen.
They were so lost in each other; they didn’t notice me walk away, heading off to find the one person I really wanted to see.
LEAVING THE HOSPITAL WING, I got my first look at the palace. It was hard to process the destruction. So much broken glass strewn across the floor, glittering hopefully in the sunlight. Ruined paintings, parts of the wall blown out, and menacing red stains on the carpets reminded me of how close we’d all been to death.
I started up the stairs, trying to avoid eye contact with anyone. As I passed from the second floor to the third, I noticed an earring on the floor. I couldn’t help but wonder if its owner was still alive.
I made my way to the landing and saw a number of guards as I walked toward Maxon’s room. I supposed it was unavoidable. If I had to, maybe I’d call out to him. Maybe he’d tell them to let me pass . . . just like the night we met.
The door to Maxon’s room was open, and people buzzed in and out, bringing in papers or taking away platters. Six guards lined the wall leading up to the door, and I braced myself for the brush-off. But as I got closer, one of the guards noticed me. He squinted, as if double-checking that I was who he thought I was. Beside him, another guard recognized me, and one by one they bowed, deeply and reverently.
One of the guards by the door extended an arm. “He’s been waiting for you, my lady.”
I tried to be someone deserving of the honor they were giving me. I stood taller as I walked, though my scratched arms and cut-off dress did nothing to help. “Thank you,” I said with a gentle nod.
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